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A new tool from UT Dallas addresses racial disparities in breast cancer patients

Breast cancer researchers from University of Texas at Dallas pose for a photo in front of a large window.
University of Texas at Dallas
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Swati Biswas, doctoral student Ibrahim Sajal and Pankaj Choudhary created a breast cancer risk-assessment tool to address racial disparities in breast cancer patients. According to a 2022 American Cancer Society report, Black women are more than 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than their white counterparts.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas are helping Black breast cancer survivors assess their risk for cancer recurrence.

Swati Biswas, a professor of statistics at the university, was one of the researchers who worked on developing the new tool. Six years ago, she and others created CBCRisk, which measures breast cancer survivors’ chance of developing contralateral breast cancer. It looks into factors like age of first breast cancer diagnosis, family history, breast density and first breast cancer type.

“When we wrote the proposal, nothing like this even existed,” Biswas said.

Contralateral breast cancer (CBC) is when a person develops a tumor in the second breast within a year or more of their first breast cancer diagnosis. According to a 2021 article in the journal of Breast Cancer Research, CBC is “the most common second cancer among breast cancer patients.”

Biswas and other researchers updated the tool this year to address the racial disparities in breast cancer patients, called CBCRisk-Black. According to a recent article in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment,  Black breast cancer survivors “have a higher risk of developing contralateral breast cancer than whites.” In addition, Biswas said Black people tend to get more aggressive and advanced-stage breast cancer than their white counterparts.

“That counseling needs to be more tailored,” she said. “This one-size-fits-all doesn’t seem like the right way to go. Their risk is higher. Their risk factors are somewhat different combinations.”

More data on Black breast cancer patients is needed

Biswas said one challenge in developing the tool was finding data on Black breast cancer survivors over time to use as a model.

“Hopefully moving forward with this awareness, there will be more research studies, more follow-up studies where this kind of data is collected,” she said.

Research scientist and UT Dallas professor Azadeh Stark says one reason there’s a lack of data on Black breast cancer survivors could be because in the 1950s and 1960s, white American women became the face of breast cancer awareness, including people like Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan.

“By virtue of their social power, they were pushing for more research,” Stark said. “White American women were identifying with these women, as a result, they participated in much of the population-based research. When I was in my training in the late '80s, early '90s, we believed breast cancer was a disease of white American women, not African Americans or [people of] other racial heritage.”

Both Stark and Biswas say there’s more targeted research on Black breast cancer patients than twenty years ago, but there’s still work to be done.

Knowing family history is one way of assessing breast cancer risk

In addition to using tools like CBCRisk, Stark recommends people perform breast self-exams, and get regular breast cancer screenings starting at age 30.

Stark says it’s also important for everyone to have conversations with family members about their health history.

“Understanding the type of diseases that are common in the family is very, very important,” she said. “It’s important to open up and understand what grandma died of, what grandpa died of, so a person understands their history of diseases in their family.”

Biwas says it’s encouraging to see her work applied in a clinical setting, offering more options to providers and patients to make choices about their health.

“It’s very fulfilling to see this math we’re doing really help patients,” she said. “We’re able to give back in some way through statistical tools.”

Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at erivera@kera.org. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenaiswriting.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Elena Rivera is the health reporter at KERA. Before moving to Dallas, Elena covered health in Southern Colorado for KRCC and Colorado Public Radio. Her stories covered pandemic mental health support, rural community health access issues and vaccine equity across the region.